As a graduate student in Professor Davidson’s “History and Future of Higher Education” course and a teaching assistant in her similarly titled MOOC, I am interacting with more than 17,000 participants online and encountering them in a surprisingly personal way. Recently, a 19-year-old MOOC participant who self-identified as ADHD and a “hacker of his education” wondered in an online forum why we were dealing with higher education specifically. It is a good and valid question, one that resonates with me deeply and personally. I have two sons with autism.
This student’s question made me wonder: Is it possible that education from online courses could provide the tools needed for learning that are not being realized in current, traditional college courses?
“Difference Is Our Operating System” is one of the principles advocated in our MOOC. And in that spirit, I think it is possible. If we want to make diversity a value to be championed, then we can build upon existing MOOCs, develop tools toward more-personalized attention, and hopefully work toward a next generation of MOOCs that help improve the futures of those with disabilities who are often overlooked today.
Beyond Howard Gardner’s well-known theory of multiple intelligences, there is a full spectrum of other kinds of intelligences that are not recognized in our schools. My youngest son, when very young, had amazing skills that never appeared on any standardized school test. For example, in an online game he played, he was able to take puzzle pieces showing the United States and place them into the shape of the United States (without any borders for guidance, mind you). He knew all the names and all of the capitals. I didn’t even remember those. He also could make highly detailed drawings with awe-inspiring creativity.
Just as Gardner advocates for a society and a school system that champion a range of intelligences, I believe we need to find ways to appreciate the range of gifts of students like my son as well. What strikes me as profound is that if I am able to be receptive to what he can do, I might learn something that exceeds the “typical” knowledge I possess, a knowledge that’s valued as the correct knowledge by any standardized test. I don’t want to make him somehow normal or neurotypical. I wanted to better understand his world, be invited into it and be amazed by what he can teach me.
As a photographer, filmmaker, and M.F.A. student, I have chosen a method to understand the world quite literally through a lens. I see the world with a camera and a roll of film. I find a certain safety in this. Through this medium, I feel that I can teach others something different about the world than they may have previously conceived. The power of being heard is truly remarkable. I wonder what tools and techniques MOOCs might offer—like my son’s online mapping games—that might help us to identify skills, talents, abilities, interests, and possibly even pathways to an independent adulthood that do not currently exist, certainly not in the typical university setting, where hundreds of students sit together in lecture halls and answer questions that can be graded by machines.
There’s no data on how many students with different abilities take MOOCs or how well they do. But there is one unofficial case study that is making its rounds at Coursera and in the broader online community. That’s the story of Daniel, a 17-year-old young man with autism. Daniel’s life began to change when he was introduced to touchpad typing. When he discovered that he could communicate by typing instead of speaking, he began to do so at an increasingly rapid pace. From there, Daniel’s father read him A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Daniel responded to questions about what he understood, some of those questions going far beyond basic plot lines. What he needed was just a little patience; with time his answers were on target, and he craved more. Daniel’s father decided to introduce him to Coursera. Daniel not only adapted to this learning environment; he excelled at it. And in completing courses on modern and contemporary American poetry and Greek and Roman mythology from top-notch schools, he discovered a community that didn’t define him by his autism.
When Daniel’s parents took him to the final webcast of modern and contemporary American poetry at Penn, he was asked to pick two words that described his MOOC experience. Daniel’s were “not impossible.”
We know that MOOCs and other online mass projects provide access to knowledge to an extended population. But if we can also learn from the diversity of participants (those with ADHD, autism, and other special needs) to create pathways for an even more diverse world of participants in higher education, then MOOCs will have fulfilled a promise where current educational systems have largely failed.